Jeni Hankins "Many of her songs contain whole novels." – Lee Smith
How are you fairing out there in this very changeable and unpredictable world? I am here in Carnforth, North Lancashire, in the Northwest part of England, writing songs, printing, sewing, reading, and remembering banjo tunes I learned fifteen years ago. The Englishman and I are fortunate that our Coronavirus lockdown restrictions do allow for one walk close to home each day. A short distance to the west of our home, flows the River Keer which marks the ancient boundary between Lancashire and Westmoreland (now Cumbria).
The River Keer is a fast running river which finds its outlet in Morecambe Bay and the Irish Sea. Where the River Keer flows into Morecambe Bay, you can see an elver flap which allows the larval and poetically named “glass eels” to pass into tidal estuaries, marshes, and tidal rivers of Europe, including the River Keer in our small town of Carnforth. These glass eels have migrated for three hundred days all the way from the wide, blue, North Atlantic Sargasso Sea before reaching their home here. They will live in our rivers for many years as they mature and, once they are ready to reproduce, they will head back across the great ocean to their birthplace to spawn and die.
Back in 2003, when Dad and I were going to music festivals in my parents’ Airstream, and I was discovering my calling as a performing songwriter, I remember my Dad reading Richard Schweid’s book “Consider the Eel” with great zeal. Its deadpan title was always a little joke between us. Dad was completely taken by how little we actually do know about eel behavior. Like many sea creatures, their lives are mostly a mystery to us humans.
So, as I walk each day by the River Keer, I think about Dad and his love for eels. They are lying at the bottom of the River Keer growing and living.
The Englishman remembers that when he was a boy in Penny Bridge, a tiny village west of Carnforth in what is now Cumbria (or you may know it as the Lake District and home to Peter Rabbit and friends), he used to catch eels when he was fishing for flukes (what we call flounder in the USA). He found them in a beck way up the hill past the Penny Bridge churchyard. After their 300-day journey to the English coast, those eels travelled just that bit further, against the current, a mile and a half, and two-hundred and twenty feet upward from the River Leven, up the River Crake, and up the beck to this small and special place where the Englishman found them.
Dad once said, all that eels seem to have in mind is growing and staying alive. And this is a good lesson for us during these strange times. Some of us will be busier than ever in hospitals, nursing homes, supermarkets, warehouses, at our computers on zoom or in the cloud. But for many of us, our job is to stay at home, stay alive, and, by staying at home, help others stay alive, too. Our "staying-at-homework" is a strange and sometimes pathetic-feeling kind of work. We feel like do-nothings. We are worried about cancelled events, closed businesses, and ever-diminishing incomes. But our job is not to do our job. Our work is to stay at home.
We are a bit like the eels whose job is to grow and stay alive until they can get back to their life’s mission which is to make more eels. We may be carrying on with our missions however best we can. We may have made grand plans to learn to play piano or clean out the attic. Many of us are still working in and outside our homes, and many of us are not, but either way, our true mission right now is to save our own lives and to save the lives of friends and strangers by doing what we are supposed to do.
Be gentle with yourself. After "this," if you stayed at home, but you never cleaned out the attic or learned piano during this time, or if you worked your socks off nursing patients and stocking supermarket shelves, or if you’re doing the work you’ve always done, as long as you are preserving life as best you can, your own and other lives, you are doing your most important work. You are being the eel.
Not far from our flat in Southeast London, there’s the terrific M. Manze’s Eatery, Peckam’s Eel and Pie House. Whenever we pass it (no actual eel eating, since we're vegetarians) and I see their terrific old sign, I say a prayer for my Dad who would have loved to eat their pies. I wish I could send him a photo of that eel and pie house right now. He would also have loved to walk along the River Keer with us in Carnforth today, looking over the banks for signs of eels.
When he was diagnosed with a terminal blood disorder, Dad worked very hard to stay alive. Even though he continued as well as he could to run his small-town newspaper, keep bees, raise chickens, learn bookbinding and printmaking, tend the farm with my Mom, repair the farmhouse, and help my sister and me with our art, his most important work was to stay alive. That meant that more and more, Dad had to stay home in isolation. He had to wear a face mask when he went outside. He washed his hands all of the time. He worked with the National Institute of Health on drug trials. And online, he supported a community of people with blood disorders who were also all trying to stay alive.
After all of this, when we are able to travel the forty minutes by car to Penny Bridge again, the Englishman and I plan to have a cup of tea and a big piece of homemade cake with his sisters. Then we are going to walk along the water path of the eel from the River Leven to where it meets the River Crake, and then up the beck to the little bridge where the glass eels are quietly growing and waiting to wriggle back to the Sargasso Sea.
Bless you and your important work, my friends. Be safe. Be well.